Learning to Sit Still

The door closes with a heavy thud and a deep, metal click before drowning me in darkness. My heartbeat instantly spikes up to twice its normal rate, and I am left naked, alone, and swimming in a salty, nebulous pool of infinite pitch-black. There are no sounds, no light, and no one to tell me what to do. I feel sick to my stomach and start fumbling for the door handle when, all of a sudden, a voice inside my head screams, “WAIT!”

I pause, startled, and try to steady my heartbeat using my breath. My mind is leaping all over the place like a frazzled lemur on Adderall. To encourage my thoughts to slow down, I begin negotiating with them as though they are a man with a gun that has taken my body hostage. “You’re the one who chose to be in this sensory deprivation tank. You know where the door is. But, for now, let’s just try to sit still and focus. Let’s not do anything rash here.”

At once, my hands float up to meet my head, pressing firmly against my cheeks, collarbone, and nipples to figure out where I am in space. Utter darkness is far more disorienting than I could have imagined, and my mind is pushing hard against its immense void to maintain control. I take a deep breath, lean back, and let the salt water carry my body into the abyss.

I take another deep breath, and I let go.

I find it hilarious how insanely hard I have to work to get my mind and my body to do the simplest thing of all – to sit still. Even now, as I crouch on my bed typing this essay, I would much rather be riding my bike around in the dark or going on a night hike or taking a yoga class, and I already worked out once today!

Some people are blessed at birth with an overabundance of energy, which, don’t get me wrong, has its perks. For instance, I’m outgoing, driven, and I get a lot of shit done. But, when it comes to huge life decisions, everyday mindfulness, and combatting anxiety, I often come up short. I’m finding that stillness, not intensity, is what lies at the heart of achieving big goals, because stillness is an essential part of the practice of patience.

So, I’ve committed myself to getting better at this one, simple task, even when my monkey mind claws at the ground with its teeth and nails when I pluck it from the playground and place it onto a meditation cushion. I promise myself to trust the process, even when it’s ugly, and I sit for several minutes a day, redirecting my errant thoughts back to my breath or whatever mantra I fancy working with.

Much like sitting in savasana after a brutal, sweaty yoga class, the mind needs stillness to find balance and reset after the abuse it’s put through day after day.

Stillness is the perfect setting in which to examine the mind itself, gazing deeply at inherent patterns and odd, echoing thoughts. I find it equal parts fascinating and embarrassing to take note of which thought vignettes my mind chooses to replay again and again. Even with the most simple mantra repetition of, “I am that,” my brain somehow finds a way to traipse through potential weekend plans, unanswered emails, and things I should have said to the cute barista.

The uncomfortable nature of sitting still is what makes it a practice, rather than a party. I’m not teaching myself to get stoned and lay on the floor listening to Pink Floyd albums in solitary comfort. I’m trying to put in the work of hundreds of hours of quiet, loving awareness so that one day, I might master my patterns and, in turn, be able to direct my thoughts more mindfully towards things I deem nourishing.

The mind’s desire to squirm its way out of the present moment during meditation is perfectly normal. You’re essentially experiencing a type of withdrawal. When was the last time you stopped allowing your thoughts to quietly run wherever they pleased? We have a natural inclination towards restlessness, a resistance to simply being where we are. It is a brave thing to purely sit and breathe.

The biggest irony is that the peace that comes from stillness will allow for greater precision when it’s time to move quickly and make swift decisions. We become more adept at assessing an uncomfortable situation when we practice sitting at attention in mild discomfort for a few minutes every day.

So much of life is waiting attentively to strike at the right moment. Climbers on a big summit push might hit a spell of bad weather, forcing them to keep their cool inside a wind-rocked tent for days. An admin worker might need to hold out for a few years to effectively network into a more creative and fulfilling job. A romantic partnership might hit a rough patch that forces patience and careful zooming out to see the big picture. The mindfulness required to stay present during discomfort is a learned skill, one that can and should be cultivated.

Listen, I don’t expect to obliterate my monkey mind entirely; I just want to be able to toss it a banana at it and let the adults in the room get to work. I want to look honestly and kindly at what lies underneath, once all the fluff and circular thought patterns fade away. I know that only then will I be able to make clear decisions about my life, career, and relationships from my core being.

I am hereby declaring myself a forever student in the art of sitting still. I’m committed to turning my gaze inward and quietly learning to enjoy my own company. After all, stillness is where we begin and where we end up, one way or another.

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2 thoughts on “Learning to Sit Still

  1. Steve says:
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    Emily, your way with words impresses me. This post was especially spot on! The struggle with letting go and being present, without being overwhelmed, is indeed a challenging one. The mind overflows and often, the “Circuit Breaker” kicks off and we are left with the task of finding our way through the darkness…to the light.
    Well done!

    • Emily Pennington (BrazenBackpacker) says:
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      Thank you so much for this comment, Steve! I feel like I was literally groping my way through the darkness in that metal floatation tank, struggling to coax my mind into simply being ok with doing nothing in the dark for an hour. Nature helps, though. It gives me something to do, even though I’m really just wandering around in the woods.
      Thanks for reading!

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